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The final item of business this morning is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-01390, in the name of Richard Lochhead, on the standard of mortuaries. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament commends the relatives of the late Frank Whyte from Findhorn, who was recently lost in a tragic boating accident, who are seeking to improve the standard of mortuaries after their distressing experience of what they considered were poor quality facilities; recognises that, due to the efforts of Mrs Maryan Whyte, her daughters and wider family, changes have been made in Moray, and that these changes have been welcomed by the family; wishes them success in their campaign for mortuary facilities to be inspected to ensure that they meet an appropriate standard for bereaved families and are sensitive to their needs, as well as ensuring dignity for the deceased, so that people do not experience additional stress during the formal identification of a loved one, and further notes that the Whyte family can be contacted by others affected by these issues by emailing email@example.com.
I start by thanking members from all parties for signing the motion that we are debating.
In March this year, Frank Whyte, a much-loved husband, father and grandfather, lost his life in a tragic boating accident in the approaches to the beautiful Findhorn Bay, where he spent much of his time sailing. The warm public tributes paid to him illustrate that Mr Whyte was a much-loved and popular member of the Findhorn community. Maryan Whyte and her granddaughter, Isla, are in the gallery today. I know that I speak for all of Parliament in reiterating our heartfelt condolences to them and their family.
The day after being informed of Mr Whyte’s tragic and sudden death, Mrs Whyte and members of her family were taken to formally identify his body at the mortuary at the former Spynie hospital in Elgin, used by Police Scotland. What the family experienced there appalled them and made an already harrowing experience much, much worse. The process was insensitive to the needs of bereaved families. Mrs Whyte said:
“Just two steps for us to be inside that awful place and there was my husband, just lying, wrapped in a blanket and throw, on a trolley. No warning of what we were entering. No place, no time for composure—just there he was.”
The facilities were run down and inadequate. Mr Whyte’s daughter, Natalie, said:
“Spynie can only be described as a derelict collection of buildings sitting on waste ground, overgrown with weeds and in a dismal state of repair. I suffer from MS and was walking with the aid of a stick that day but there was nowhere for me to sit and rest. I ended up sitting on the ground outside. It was extremely distressing.”
His other daughter, Sharon, said:
“It looked like a disused outbuilding we were being taken to—not somewhere our loved one would be. There was no opportunity to say goodbye to Dad, so our last image of seeing him is in a little-used, unkempt building in urgent need of replacement.”
The whole experience was traumatic for a recently bereaved family and failed adequately to respect the dignity of their loved one. I know that the minister will want to get to the bottom of how this was allowed to happen, because I am sure that we can all agree that what the Whyte family were put through is wholly unacceptable.
Mrs Whyte tells me that after reading an unrelated news article about the general run-down state of the former hospital—and knowing what she had been put through—she decided to act, so the family decided to speak out. As soon as they conveyed to the authorities in Moray their experience, the national health service, Moray Council and Police Scotland all agreed that that was unacceptable. NHS Grampian apologised. As a result, Spynie is no longer used for family viewing. Dr Gray’s hospital in Elgin is being used on a temporary basis and Mrs Whyte is now working with the mortuary for Moray planning group on longer-term solutions.
I should say at this point that Mrs Whyte found it very difficult to identify who was ultimately responsible for Spynie mortuary. Likewise, I was struck by the opaque lines of responsibility. In the case of Spynie, we had to speak to Moray Council, the NHS and Police Scotland. I therefore urge the minister to address that confusion so that the public, and the rest of us, clearly understand who is in charge of police and hospital mortuary facilities.
There is absolutely no doubt that many families have gone through the same experience as the Whyte family. I have had other constituents who have since told me that they were similarly affected by their visit to Spynie mortuary. However, it is down to the determination of the Whyte family to do something about that that action is now being taken.
The Whyte family is also aware that there is a similar situation in other parts of Scotland. They do not want any other family—anywhere—to go through what they went through. That is the message from this debate and that is why Mrs Whyte and her daughters, Sharon and Natalie, were very grateful to the more than a dozen MSPs from across the parties who took time to speak to them when they visited Parliament earlier this month.
What came to light in Moray is now a national issue and the Whyte family’s campaign is attracting support from the public and from professionals. I am very grateful to Stewart Fleming, professor of cellular and molecular pathology and also a director of the Centre for Forensic and Legal Medicine at the University of Dundee. He contacted me and the Whyte family to support their campaign.
Professor Fleming has responsibility for death investigations in Tayside, Fife and Forth Valley and has overseen the building of new mortuaries in Dundee, Kirkcaldy and Larbert. He has produced a list of standards required for the deceased, the bereaved and the professionals. I do not have time to go through them, but I want to refer to the statement that he provided. He says:
“l support fully the campaign for an improvement in standards of mortuary provision across Scotland. A mortuary should continue the delivery of the highest possible quality of care for the people of Scotland even after death. It should ensure dignity and respect for the deceased, comfort and support for bereaved relatives and friends and be a suitable working environment for professionals involved in the care of the deceased and the investigation of death.”
He goes on to say:
“Unfortunately there is considerable variation in the quality of mortuary provision across the country. While there are examples of excellent provision there are a considerable number of mortuaries requiring significant improvement.”
As we can see, the Whyte family’s experience in Moray highlights a national issue. I welcome the minister’s recent words of comfort for the family and her recent meeting with them, and I thank her for listening to their case and promising to act. It is also welcome that ministers have instructed the national health service Scottish property advisory group to look into these issues.
As well as having to grieve following the loss of a loved one, the family felt that it was necessary to campaign, and they continue to urge people to contact them via www.mortuaryformoray.com. My constituents have found themselves in the spotlight, giving media interviews and visiting Parliament, but none of us should forget what they have been through in these past few months, which only strengthens our admiration and respect for them. They wish to ensure that there is dignity for the deceased and that people do not endure additional distress during the formal identification of a loved one.
The Whyte family’s campaign has achieved so much so far in bringing about changes in Moray, but they now want to ensure that all mortuaries in Scotland are inspected and that steps are taken where necessary to ensure that all mortuaries meet an agreed set of 21st century standards for the facilities and the identification process that are monitored and complied with, in line with what we would expect in a compassionate society.
I look forward to hearing the minister respond to the issues that I have raised and to her joining me and other members on all sides of the chamber in paying tribute to the Whyte family’s tenacity and determination to ensure that no other bereaved family goes through what they went through at Spynie mortuary.
I congratulate Richard Lochhead on bringing the debate to the chamber, and I agree whole-heartedly with 100 per cent of his speech. I welcome Maryan Whyte, and her granddaughter Isla Robertson from Forres academy, to Parliament today. It is the second time that the family have been down here in recent weeks. Through their personal tragedy and the experience that they have undergone, the strength that they have shown in trying to better the facilities in mortuaries throughout Scotland is highly commendable.
I met Maryan Whyte last Friday in Elgin, exactly five months to the day since Frank tragically died. I will read out a couple of words about him from the press coverage following his death: he was a
“beloved boatbuilder” and
“a jovial character, who liked ... a good yarn.
The family understandably miss Frank, but we hope that their campaign since his death will lead to improvements so that other families do not have to experience the same issues to which Richard Lochhead referred.
I will not reiterate everything that Richard Lochhead said about the experience that the family—Maryan, Sharon and Natalie—went through, but Spynie mortuary could not, in 2016, be considered to be fit for purpose. The facility was built in 1933 and closed by the NHS 12 years ago, so why did the local authority, the police force and the NHS think that it was right in this day and age to continue to use it as a mortuary?
Things have changed and the situation has moved on quickly since the incident five months ago, and there are now temporary measures in place for viewing at Dr Gray’s hospital. However, the storage of bodies continues at Spynie, and I have serious concerns about the security of the facility. That issue has been raised locally in the press, and we need to ensure that security at Spynie is improved.
In addition, we need to not rely on the temporary replacement at Dr Gray’s but to look for a long-term replacement, because Dr Gray’s is not ideal. Bodies must be moved across the car park to the viewing gallery on the other side of the campus, and that is not suitable for anyone. We must ensure that a better process is put in place.
I would like the minister to explain in summing up where—as Richard Lochhead asked—the responsibility lies. Is it with the NHS, the police or the local authority? Should we have an overarching governing body for all the mortuaries in Scotland to ensure that, if there is an issue, people know that they can go to the NHS, police or the local authority? At the moment there is too much confusion on that very emotive and personal issue, and we need further information on it.
I also wish to know why there is no inspectorate of mortuary facilities. If there was, Spynie would never have been used. It took a personal tragedy and a campaigning family to bring about change, instead of the concerns that clearly existed about Spynie being addressed by someone going in and checking the facilities. There are very good examples of mortuaries across Scotland, but there are very bad examples. Moray has been highlighted as a bad example, but it is not alone. We need to do more to inspect facilities to ensure that this is not allowed to happen again.
Maryan asked me to ensure that I mentioned the website and Richard Lochhead has done that already. The email address to which the family want information sent is firstname.lastname@example.org. They want to hear from more families across Scotland to ensure that we get this right across the country.
Richard Lochhead quoted Professor Stewart Fleming and I will finish by reiterating this quote from him:
“A mortuary should ensure dignity and respect for the deceased, comfort and support for bereaved relatives and friends and be a suitable working environment for professionals involved in the care of the deceased and the investigation of death.”
In light of the Whyte family’s experiences following their personal tragedy, we can only hope that that standard, written by Professor Fleming, can be replicated across Scotland, so that the family’s campaign will have made a big difference not only in Moray but throughout our country. I commend them for everything that they have done.
On behalf of the Labour team, I commend Richard Lochhead for bringing this matter to the Parliament’s attention through his motion and the debate. I also express my condolences to Mr Whyte’s family, who are in the public gallery, for their loss and the undue distress that they faced as a result of the condition of Spynie mortuary.
Nobody should have to go through such an experience, and I praise the family for the work that they have undertaken at such a distressing time to try and secure changes to mortuary standards so that other families do not suffer a similar harrowing experience in the future.
Since becoming a member of the Parliament, I have had the privilege of working closely with healthcare and social care professionals who dedicate their working lives to ensuring the comfort and dignity of those they care for. Compassion does not stop at the end of somebody’s life. Mortuaries and post-mortem facilities serve a practical function but, for some, they are the last place where they see their loved ones. As such, they hold a unique place in a person’s grieving process. It is therefore imperative that the condition of mortuaries is such that the dignity of the deceased is upheld and the distress that families face is minimised. That was not the case for the Whyte family.
If anything positive can come from the Whyte family’s experience—which, as Mrs Whyte told the BBC, also seems to be the experience of families in other parts of Scotland—it is the fact that this story has brought to our attention the shocking fact that there is no specific inspection regime and there are no guidelines for inspections of mortuaries in Scotland.
As members will be aware, under the Public Health etc (Scotland) Act 2008, mortuaries can be provided by local authorities or health boards, or by a combination of the two. The standards for the management of hospital post-mortem examinations include standards for hospital staff supporting bereaved families. Specifically, the relevant standard states that the staff working at the facility must ensure that
“The deceased, and people who have been bereaved, are treated with dignity and respect, and in accordance with their wishes.”
Although such standards are welcome, they appear to be specific only to hospital post-mortems, and not mortuary provision across the board. That needs to change. We need to have standards for all mortuaries on treating the deceased and their families with dignity. Standards must also take into account factors such as the faith, cultural values and beliefs of both the deceased and the bereaved.
Scottish health planning note 20 provides particular guidance on the elements that should be considered in the building of mortuaries. Simple considerations such as ambient lighting and thoughtful decoration of waiting areas are suggested, and such additions to all mortuaries would be welcome. The problem at the moment, as highlighted by the Whyte family, is that such standards are not enforceable in existing mortuaries, as inspection procedures do not exist. That cannot continue.
I welcome the proposals from NHS Grampian for improving Spynie mortuary, but such improvements should not have to come on the back of the unacceptable personal experiences of those who have lost loved ones. Facilities that are fit for purpose must be the norm, and minimum standards have to be put in place and properly enforced. I therefore welcome Richard Lochhead’s motion and echo the Whyte family’s calls for regular inspections of mortuaries in every part of Scotland to ensure that minimum standards are enforced.
I finish with Mrs Whyte’s comments, which I read on the BBC website. She said:
“Families who are suffering in difficult and often tragic circumstances should be shown much more compassion than what we found ... It is vital that at such a difficult time, families should have access to a mortuary that is fit for purpose where families can feel comforted and where the deceased are treated with dignity and respect.”
I could not agree more, and Mr Lochhead and the Whyte family will have the full support of Labour in seeking to achieve just that.
This is undoubtedly one of the rare occasions in politics when all of us, from all parties in the chamber, can unite in common cause. We can unite in thanking Richard Lochhead, the constituency MSP for Moray, for securing the debate and for helping constituents to bring this badly neglected issue to the Parliament’s attention. We can also unite in thanking Mrs Whyte and her daughters, and their wider family, for their efforts to improve the standard of mortuaries not just in Moray but throughout Scotland.
Despite the fact that death is an inevitable part of life, the death of someone whom we love is one of the toughest experiences that we ever go through, and sudden or unexpected death is particularly distressing. In the midst of normal everyday life, with no hint of warning, the worst possible thing happens and our world is turned upside down. The shock causes strong physical and emotional responses. It can be quite literally gut-wrenching, and it can feel unreal—it can be really hard to take in what is happening. However, despite that fog in our brains, we create vivid memories at the time that become central to our experience of bereavement.
I think that we can all agree that the experience of sudden or unexpected death is traumatic enough, and that the experience of making a formal identification should not add to the trauma. If the service is sensitive to the family’s needs at that traumatic time, it can help turn the tide of profound grief and make the ordeal liveable; it might even create some positive memories. I cannot be the only person who was shocked to hear about the poor-quality facilities that Mrs Whyte and her family faced at Spynie mortuary after her husband Frank died in an accident earlier this year.
All of us expect mortuaries to have certain minimum standards. All of us expect mortuaries to be maintained to a standard that demonstrates care, dignity and respect. All of us expect mortuaries to be sensitive to the needs of families and loved ones, and to provide comfort. All of us expect mortuaries to provide families and loved ones with a place to recover and compose themselves before they face the outside world again. All of us expect, at the very least, mortuaries to have toilet facilities. It is disappointing that the facilities at Spynie mortuary in Moray fell so far short our expectations. However, it is really pleasing that action has already been taken by NHS Grampian to remedy the situation.
I admire the Whyte family for campaigning on the issue, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to tell them so when I met them with Richard Lochhead in Parliament last month. To face their situation and to come through it with a determination to ensure that other families will not have to face similar situations is a credit to them. That determination to turn a desperate experience into a positive change is truly inspirational. The knowledge that they have already effected change locally and nationally must bring some comfort and is a fitting legacy for an undoubtedly much-loved husband, father and grandfather.
I, too, thank Richard Lochhead for bringing the issue to Parliament.
Few of us feel comfortable when dealing with the practical aspects of saying a final farewell to our loved ones, so it is important to have professional help at that sad time. We expect the process of preparing for burial or cremation to be dignified and to be undertaken with great care and respect—and in most cases that is what happens. We do not expect our loved ones to be subjected to a setting that is reminiscent of a shed in a backyard. However, that was the experience of Maryan Whyte after her husband Frank died in a sailing accident in May.
Frank was taken to Spynie mortuary in Elgin, where Maryan—whom I also had the pleasure of meeting when she came into the Parliament recently—found him lying not in comfort and security but in dampness and squalor. Frank lay on a trolley in the middle of a darkened room, the only things covering him being a blanket and a throw. Maryan described the environment as being “unkempt”, “run down” and akin to “an old garage”. It is beyond belief that her husband should have been left in a room that appeared abandoned and unmaintained. No wonder she described herself as feeling “desolate”.
The bereaved are already in great pain following their loss and it is appalling that that pain should be compounded unnecessarily by neglect from those in authority, who should know better. We constantly fight for the basic rights of the living, but we are surely entitled to dignity in death, too. That is not what the Whyte family encountered in Elgin. Every mortuary should have basic necessities in order to effectively comfort, console and care for the grieving. However, it would be wrong to assume that that is the picture that is seen throughout Scotland—the truth is that we simply do not know.
This awful case has shone a light on the issue and, as others have said, it is incumbent on the Government to instigate a review of mortuaries and their condition throughout the country. Let us find out what the picture is nationwide and then have a plan to rectify any failings that we find.
It is essential for mortuaries to provide high standards of care and an adequate setting in order to meet the needs of us all. If mortuaries underperform or fail to do what is expected of them, it is up to the Government to act and promote better standards. I rather like the idea of having an overarching body to deal with mortuaries. A nationwide inspection of mortuaries will not only highlight areas for improvement but evidence the hard work and commitment of professionals who are getting it right. Good practice must be highlighted, shared and celebrated. Ultimately, improvements in practice can only benefit the most important people at their worst time—the deceased and their grieving loved ones.
Maryan and her family have been brave to bring their campaign here. It is not easy for people to put themselves in the spotlight and I thank them for doing so. Their experience may help others, and it is up to us to make sure that that is what happens.
I, too, am grateful to Richard Lochhead for lodging his motion, and I am grateful for the chance to respond on the Scottish Government’s behalf. I am also grateful for the contributions of all the members who took part in the debate. They spoke with a great deal of compassion.
I know that everyone here is and was shocked by the Whyte family’s description of what they went through. That is how I felt when I heard about it from Richard Lochhead’s correspondence and the media. In Richard Lochhead’s words, the Whyte family’s experience was “wholly unacceptable”.
It is hard to even begin to imagine how upsetting it must be to deal with the loss of a loved one in such tragic and unexpected circumstances as those that Mrs Whyte found herself facing. To have then been asked to visit the mortuary at Spynie hospital, which was obviously in such a poor and inappropriate condition, was completely unacceptable, and it compounded the family’s upset, trauma and pain.
I pass on my sincerest condolences to Mrs Whyte and her family, who are in the public gallery, and say how sorry I was to hear of their experience. I have met the family and conveyed that privately, but I very much welcome the opportunity to do so today in public. I appreciate the strength that the family have shown in discussing their concerns with me. That cannot have been easy, but their desire to make a difference shows remarkable courage and is a true inspiration.
The Scottish Government issues guidance on mortuary facilities to all NHS boards and fully expects them to apply it. The guidance sets out the clear requirement that viewings should take place in appropriately serene, calming and dignified surroundings. It is clear that the guidance was not adhered to in the Whytes’ case. That is troubling and deeply concerning and it leads to many questions.
Before coming to those questions, I should say that I am aware that NHS Grampian has been in regular contact with the Whyte family in recent weeks and months, and it has taken steps to ensure that what happened to Mrs Whyte and her family will not happen to anyone else in the Grampian area. The health board has reassured me that, from this point onwards, all viewings will take place in more appropriate surroundings at Dr Gray’s hospital, and it will not ask any family to visit Spynie mortuary again. I will endeavour to ensure that security of provision, which Douglas Ross raised, is carefully looked at.
It is positive that the health board has taken action in this case, but the Whyte family’s experience raises certain questions, as I mentioned. One is the extent to which health boards across Scotland are complying with the requirements that we have set out clearly. As an immediate first step on hearing of the Whytes’ experience, I wrote to ask all health boards to assure me that they are complying with the current guidance on mortuary provision. I further asked that, if they could not do that, they give me a detailed plan on how they will rectify that as a matter of urgency.
My officials and I will take care to scrutinise the responses that we receive from the health boards, and we will press the boards to ensure that facilities are brought up to standard in any case where they fall short. It will absolutely be a requirement that boards do that as quickly as they can, and there will be no excuses.
I have instructed officials to begin a thorough review of the present guidance to ensure that it is fully up to date, is sufficiently detailed and leaves nothing to doubt. Once the review is completed, the renewed guidance will be issued to each health board chief executive.
Absolutely. I was going to mention Professor Fleming, whom I understand my officials have contacted, and we will continue to engage with Richard Lochhead, the Whyte family and anyone who has expertise in this incredibly important issue.
It is worth noting that the questions that the case raises go beyond matters of NHS health board compliance. Other organisations that use mortuary facilities are responsible for their operation and upkeep; they include large and diverse organisations such as the police, every local authority in Scotland and, of course, the private sector. The diversity of organisations that are involved causes great complexity.
It is worth considering that the issue is not just the fabric, fixtures and fittings of the mortuary facilities; we also need to ensure that family members who are required to visit mortuaries are treated with thought, care and compassion by appropriately trained staff. It is because of the complexities that a cross-Government approach is required to review and understand the landscape of provision, identify areas of action and ensure that organisations that use mortuary facilities do so with a duty of care at the forefront of their minds. I do not want families to go through any further suffering, and I will use the Whyte family’s experience to inform positive change and bring the clarity that Richard Lochhead mentioned in his opening remarks.
For that reason, I have begun working with other ministers to investigate mortuary provision in its entirety across Scotland, to fully understand the concerns of Mr Lochhead and the Whyte family, agree a way forward and take action. I will work in conjunction with ministers and Scottish Government officials to make progress on the matter as quickly as possible, because of its importance. I will be happy to report back to Mr Lochhead and the Whyte family as that work continues. Professor Fleming’s input will be crucial.
I offer again my deepest sympathy to Mrs Whyte and her family. I am grateful for their efforts, along with those of Mr Lochhead, in bringing the matter to our attention at what is a difficult time for them. I sincerely hope that they can take our actions and future actions as a tribute to their tenacity and, in the intense period of grieving that they are going through, take some small comfort from the fact that their efforts have made a lasting difference for everyone across Scotland.
13:19 Meeting suspended.
14:30 On resuming—